Many Americans switch religious denominations, study finds

In a landmark survey, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds a new religious landscape in America.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A panoramic snapshot of American religious life in 2008 reveals an extraordinary dynamism that is reshaping the country's major traditions in historic ways.

Almost half of Americans have moved to a different religious denomination from that in which they were raised, and 28 percent have switched to a different major tradition or to no religion (i.e., from Roman Catholic to Protestant, Jewish to unaffiliated).

The fluidity is combining with immigration to spur dramatic changes in the religious landscape. Protestantism appears on the verge of losing its majority status. The number of "unaffiliated" Americans has doubled, to 16 percent. One-third of Catholics are now Latino and the religion is depending on immigration to maintain its share of the population.

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These shifts are captured in a survey released Monday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

"The extent of change in the American religious marketplace is remarkable," says Luis Lugo, the Pew Forum's director, in an interview. "Everyone is losing, and has difficulty retaining childhood members, but everyone is also gaining."

The report is the first of three that Pew will release this year from a path-breaking survey of the US religious landscape. Based on interviews in English or Spanish with a representative sample of 35,000 adults, it describes America's religious composition and the changes under way. Later this spring, the second report will analyze Americans' beliefs and practices, and the third, their social and political values.

The movement between churches and denominations is not new, but the report documents its remarkable scope. "Religious fluidity is part of a larger picture of fluidity in American life generally," says Wade Clark Roof, author of "Spiritual Marketplace" and professor at University of California at Santa Barbara. "You can read this as 'It's what America is about – we choose.... The downside is enormous instability, lack of grounding, wandering in the wilderness."

Observers point to many reasons for the shifts. People may change churches because they relocate to a part of the country where different denominations predominate, or they may prefer another style of worship. Whatever the reasons, the survey reveals some clear winners and losers.

Protestantism, which has shaped American identity for generations, may soon become a minority faith. In the 1980s, 65 percent of Americans called themselves Protestants; today that number is down to 51 percent. Only 43 percent of those aged 18-29 say they are Protestant.

Much has been written about the declines in mainline churches. But in comparing the current religious affiliation of adults with their childhood affiliations, the survey found a net loss of 3.7 percent for Baptists (Baptists account for one-third of all Protestants and nearly two-thirds of black Protestant churches.)

Perhaps the big surprise, though, relates to Roman Catholicism, which experienced the greatest net loss. While 31.4 percent of adults say they were raised Catholic, today only 23.9 percent identify as Catholic, a net loss of 7.5 percent.

"The Catholic numbers are eye-popping," says Dr. Lugo. "One out of every 10 people you meet on the street is a former Catholic."

Fortunately for the Church, however, its share of the religious pie has remained steady in recent decades, due partly to conversions but largely to immigration. Catholics account for 24 percent of the adult population, but immigration could well boost its future share.

"Within our society, Protestants basically outnumber Catholics 2 to 1," Lugo says. "Among immigrants, it's the reverse: Catholics outnumber Protestants by more than 2 to 1."

The big winner on the shifting religious scene is the group of "unaffiliated" Americans. Today 16.1 percent of adults fit that category. Among young people 18 to 29, one-quarter are unaffiliated.

It's common for young adults completing education or starting careers to become detached from their faith connection. Other people may become disillusioned with organized religion.

"Scandals and conflicts lead some to distance themselves even though they still hold Christian beliefs," says Darren Sherkat, a sociologist at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, who has studied the unaffiliated. "A perhaps growing percentage are disaffiliated because they don't hold Christian beliefs."

The survey found that 1.6 percent of adults call themselves atheists and 2.4 percent are agnostics (who consider God to be unknowable). The remaining 12 percent in "unaffiliated" split almost evenly between the secular and the religious, who may practice their faith on their own.

Although this category is growing the fastest, the survey shows that about half of the unaffiliated end up returning to a faith connection. Other research, however, indicates that many young people today are disaffected from Christianity, and religious leaders worry that they won't follow the usual return pattern.

Currently Christianity retains the allegiance of 78 percent of Americans. Nondenominational churches are growing and attracting about 5 percent of adults.

Other world faiths also now account for 5 percent of the population (see chart). Their net losses or gains in affiliation were relatively small: Jews dropped by 0.2 percent, Muslims gained by 0.1 percent, Buddhists gained by 0.3 percent, and Hindus showed no change.

The survey, which provides information on more than a dozen traditions and on religious groups as small as 3/10 of one percent of the adult population, is available at www.pewforum.org

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